A recent article in the Economic Times has pointed out how our elderly population fears the social distancing advocated recently to contain the spread of Coronavirus. Their biggest fear is isolation and lack of communication. But, to my mind, even more, important to them is the loss of connection with their loved ones and the inability to be productive or to contribute to society. Add to this the lack of avenues of social interaction with friends or cohorts suddenly, and possible ostracism or insignificance in the face of the gathering epidemic, and the dangers of depression, anxiety, and other mental conditions become real.
How to address this? These are my suggestions to ensure that our parents continue to feel loved and appreciated for what they alone can offer even in this time of contact precautions and isolation from the Contagion:
- Be aware of their fears and concerns. Approach this unspoken reality in their lives with sensitivity and understanding while also being aware of failing faculties, such as loss of memory, cognitive impairment, functional deterioration, and greater susceptibility to the infection.
- Keep them safe. Physical protection is critical. Keep them away from possible carriers such as housemaids, clinical assistants, therapists, cooks, etc. along with the young ones who might be much more reckless in their social interactions. Be mindful also of their need for physical activity and exposure to natural light and surroundings if possible and a regular schedule, their need to hear and read outside news, and be in touch with the world. Ensure that risks of increased falls are prevented by ensuring a safe home environment and any medical concerns are addressed early without being overly dramatic, controlling, or solicitous. The phrase I use sometimes for caregivers is that some of them grow into ‘children with big bodies and bigger attitudes’. But they are still dependent and often they know it. Take away the fear of loss of independence without allowing them to endanger themselves.
- Keep them busy. Not just with physical activity but also mental activity, interactions over social media, or phone. They might like to read certain kinds of literature or journals. A regular schedule helps them control the environment and their selves better and gives them structure and coherence. If they can learn how to use social media, that might also bring the world to their fingertips.
- Keep them happy. They need to know that you love and appreciate them. Be more tolerant of their habits and proclivities which might seem outdated or rigid or foolish to you. Let them know that you love them and appreciate them and are grateful to them and prize them for who they are to you and what they bring to you. That you still need them and are willing to do anything for them. The blessings that come from such a relationship are inconceivable and healthy interaction with one’s parents is one of the keys to personal success and happiness.
- Keep them nourished. They will often stop eating due to poor dentition or loss of appetite or taste sensations or depression or simple forgetfulness. It is essential to ensure that they are getting the nutrients they need in terms of proteins, essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, fiber, carbohydrates, hydration, etc. Malnutrition is common at this age and should not be ignored.
- Keep them clean. Good hygiene is essential for their health and self-esteem. Soiling of undergarments might happen, and measures must be undertaken to prevent, address, or treat incontinence or lack of control. Skin breakdown due to the soiling of skin might become a serious condition if not diagnosed and treated early.
- Keep them informed. They will feel respected and an important part of the family in which they are. In the ancient Indian tradition, one’s parents are more important than even one’s children. They need to hear that. Communicate with them. Spend time with them. I have spent hours sometimes just listening to my father speak of his life experiences and I have learned more about management and administration from him than from all the books in a library put together. Talk to them at least once a day if they live afar. They might still like to receive letters in an old-fashioned way if you still remember how to write them. Or a simple phone call or facetime might be their highlight of the day.
- Keep them productive. My father is 86 years old but still likes to contribute to society. Whether it is by writing or watching over small activities in the house or our business or simply being part of family discussions, it is important that our parents feel that they are not a burden in the household but of value. They must know that they can articulate their concerns and still contribute to their knowledge and expertise. I make sure that my father still reviews any possible real estate interaction due to his vast experience in the legal field.
- Be aware of their needs and anticipate requirements. They may not ask you for anything since they do not wish to trouble you. They may be inwardly ready to ‘check out’ because they do not wish to be a burden. My father used these words with me. At this point be proactive. They may be worried about their cost of care which you might have to shoulder. Assure them that they are more valuable than any possible price-tag.
- Try not to be critical. They are not your students. A friend of mine was complaining of his 85-year old in his ‘terrible two’s’. They are failing. They know they are failing. They cannot remember sometimes. Sometimes they cannot control their outbursts. They might even lash out at you. At this point, immense understanding and forbearance are needed. Do not show them their flaws or deficiencies. That only hurts them more. In the ancient Chinese culture, the older a person, the greater their value to their society. We may need to recover that approach in our life too.
There is so much one can do with one’s parents. The most important thing is to be grateful to them and let them know this. To love them and show this with one’s words and actions. To treat them as the most valued treasures of one’s life and they will reciprocate a thousand times over in ways seen or unseen, measured, or immeasurable. In the end, remember, they are the greatest blessing that you can have.